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After Children Die, New Study Questions Psychologists' Recommendations in Custody Battles


After Children Die, New Study Questions Psychologists' Recommendations in Custody Battles

Study's author, Dr. Ira Turkat, notes that psychologists' recommendations can not only be harmful - they can be deadly

PR Newswire

DENVER, July 25, 2018 /PRNewswire-PRWeb/ -- Custody disputes are notoriously complex and highly-volatile -- two sides battling it out over custody and visitation rights for their children. As a result, family court judges rely on the recommendations of psychologists acting as child custody evaluators to determine the best custody arrangements for children. The problem, according to a new study by Dr. Ira Turkat outlined in the most recent "American Journal of Family Law," is that there is "no scientific evidence proving that psychologists' recommendations help children. They are nothing more than opinion."

Dr. Turkat's research notes that psychologists' recommendations, which greatly influence judges, can not only be "harmful – they can be deadly." In his study, Dr. Turkat points to a series of recent cases from across the United States where psychologists provided recommendations to judges about parents in custody battles, and these same parents later murdered their own children.

"There is no scientific proof that psychologists involved in custody disputes make better decisions than plumbers or sewer workers could when it comes to the custody of a child," says Dr. Turkat.

A Florida licensed psychologist and former professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Dr. Ira Turkat specializes in family law disputes and has published 100 scholarly articles and books. He hopes that his latest study will be a wakeup call for the legal system.

"Every psychologist that makes these recommendations, which in some cases are paid tens of thousands of dollars to do so, should be required to say there is no scientific proof their opinions will prove helpful. If you also make psychologists liable if the children end up dead or harmed because of their recommendations and thus put their license on the line, I suspect most psychologists will stop giving these opinions" Turkat says.

Dr. Turkat cites three cases in which children ended up being killed:

  • In Virginia, the Joaquin Rams case - a psychologist advised the court to remove its supervised visitation order in a custody dispute and permit unmonitored visits between father and child. The court followed the psychologist's advice. The fourth unsupervised visit resulted in the father (Rams) murdering his child.
  • In Maryland, the Mark Castillo case - a court appointed psychologist in a custody dispute listened to a mother's plea that the father (Castillo) posed a risk to the well-being of their children, but was not persuaded, and recommended the father be granted unsupervised access to them. The court endorsed the evaluator's recommendation. Months later, the father drowned all three of his children.
  • In California, the recent Nicolas Holzer case - a psychologist with decades of experience performing custody evaluations, and who also served on the faculty of a university doctoral program in psychology, performed a court-ordered custody evaluation and recommended the father be awarded primary custody. The court followed the psychologist's advice and Holzer later stabbed his two sons to death. In a tragic irony, he pleaded not guilty by "reason of insanity."

"In my opinion, there's something wrong with our system where judges rely on the advice of psychologists who can get it so wrong, giving their seal of approval to a parent who turns out to be a child killer," says Dr. Turkat. "When a judge appoints a psychologist to give advice in a custody battle about what living arrangements would be best for the children, the court typically orders the parents to follow it. But sometimes, the psychologist's advice is deadly. The failure of psychologists to make proper recommendations about parents in these situations is tragic and stunning."

It's not just the most tragic ending possible to be concerned about. Children can also face serious harm in the hands of the wrong parent after these recommendations are made, which may include emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Another recent study Dr. Turkat conducted in "Court Review: The Journal of the American Judges Association" found that one in every five parents reported their children were harmed by the psychologist's custody evaluation. In a key finding, he notes "that two-thirds (65%) of parents said the cost of the psychologist's work was not in their children's best interest. In other words, most parents felt ripped off."

"Psychologists may charge thousands of dollars to perform a custody evaluation. Wealthy families may be charged tens of thousands. The most expensive one I am aware of cost over $300,000. The result for paying such high fees is an opinion with no scientific proof it is correct and that may put children in harm's way," adds Dr. Turkat.

He notes, that "professional "guidelines" for child custody evaluations are not a proper substitute for a lack of scientific proof."

"Today's guidelines for performing child custody evaluations not only lack scientific evidence that they help children, they may be detrimental by implying that exams that follow such guidelines are of 'high quality.'"

Dr. Turkat points out that in his experience as a family law litigation consultant, when harm does come to a child, more often than not, "nothing happens to the psychologist who provided the recommendation." The solution? Dr. Turkat believes that the family court system should stop the use of psychologists performing these evaluations in custody battles and should launch a coordinated national effort of scientific research to identify what works and what doesn't in these cases. In the meantime, he says, "scientifically, judges seem no less capable of making these decisions than psychologists."

About Dr. Turkat: Dr. Turkat has served on the faculty at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and University of Florida College of Medicine. In 2011, the British Psychological Society named Dr. Turkat alongside three of the world's most outstanding clinical psychologists for his innovative work on case formulation in the first-ever guidelines on it for British psychologists to follow.

Dr. Turkat is the only American named among the four. His publications have appeared in The Judges Journal, Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and numerous other professional and scientific outlets.


SOURCE Dr. Ira Turkat

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